Streak on the line as CSU volleyball hosts final matches

CSU volleyball
The CSU volleyball team celebrated its 23rd consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament last year.

The year was 1994. Director Quentin Tarantino’s legendary film Pulp Fiction was a smash hit. The iconic sitcom Friends had just arrived on he scene. And in a moment many thought would never arrive, Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa.

O.J. Simpson was charged with murder following the infamous white Bronco chase. Audiences were flocking to see Forrest Gump and Disney’s Lion King, and surfing the web became a thing following the launch of Netscape Navigator.

Closer to home, Fort Collins had just crossed the 100,000 residents barrier, and legendary CSU football coach Sonny Lubick won the first of his six conference titles.

Tom Hilbert
CSU coach Tom Hilbert

In the beginning …

If you were looking for a highlight from CSU’s volleyball program, well, you’re out of luck. The Rams finished a disappointing 12-19 that season and finished seventh in the Western Athletic Conference. There was very little reason to think something special was about to happen … but it was. Something very, very special.

That year was the last time CSU failed to post a winning record in volleyball. It’s also the last time the Rams failed to win at least 20 matches in a season. And the last time they failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

23 and counting

Think about that. CSU has posted 23 consecutive 20-win seasons and been rewarded each time with an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. No Division I sports program in the state – and very few in the country – can boast a more impressive streak of success.

“I hope people in this community never take the success of this program for granted because it really is something very special,” Rams coach Tom Hilbert said. “And it doesn’t just happen – it takes a lot of hard work to achieve that type of sustained success.”

The streak even predates Hilbert, who has recorded more victories (560) at CSU than any coach in any sport in the state’s history. He arrived in 1997 and has continued the process of building CSU into a national volleyball phenomenon.

Huge final weekend

So, not surprisingly, the Rams once again are in position to extend the streak. They play their final two regular-season matches of the season Nov. 15 and 17, facing UNLV at 7 p.m. Thursday and New Mexico at 7 p.m. Saturday. Both matches are at Moby Arena; tickets are available online, via phone (800-491-7267), at the McGraw Athletic Center ticket office (8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday) or at the door on game day.

Katie OleksakFor the Rams (22-6), the mission is simple: Win one match and clinch the Mountain West title and another NCAA Tournament berth. Lose both and things get a little dicey, with an NCAA berth anything but assured.

The thing is, these Rams apparently have forgotten how to lose. Since Oct. 2, when they lost at Wyoming, the Rams have reeled off 11 consecutive victories – eight of them in three-set sweeps. Two weeks ago they were behind Fresno State in second place; now they are in first with a one-game lead heading into the final weekend of the regular season. NCAA Tournament berths are announced Sunday.

Four – and perhaps more – Rams could end on the all-conference team, including junior setter Katie Oleksak, junior middle blocker Kirstie Hillyer, junior middle blocker Paulina Hougaard-Jensen and sophomore outside hitter Breana Runnels. All have been outstanding throughout the season, and Hilbert suspects Oleksak could be named the conference’s player of the year.

Just getting started

And here’s the really great thing about this team: there are no seniors, so everybody returns next year. The Rams will be in great shape to push the streak to 25 – if they can clinch 24 this weekend.

“We’re a team that is peaking at the right time, and we’re playing two quality opponents, so I hope people come out and see this team play,” Hilbert said. “I honestly feel like Colorado State volleyball is kind of a treasure in this community and something that should not be missed if you haven’t experienced it. This team is really good.”